Friday, February 24, 2012

Unintended Consequences: Rethinking Diocesan Practices

Reposted for new Sky View readers:

"The bureaucracy is spent and tired…It is sad that there are what you might call professional Catholics who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops.”

-Pope Benedict XVI

Delaying Action:

Fr. George Rutler once said that the first protocol of any bureaucracy is to delay action. Over the years Catholic dioceses have seemingly evolved into bureaucracies known for just that…delaying action. Initiatives, creativity and taking the risks that come natural to great missions are not known to be fostered within diocesan walls. However, it is of great importance for the New Evangelization that dioceses across the nation are efficient and dynamic centers for spiritual growth.

There has to be a better way than the way your average diocese operates today. Can we not ask the following question: Do Catholic dioceses need to be burdened with layers of bureaucracy and a multiplicity of departments which usually end up stifling initiatives and bold missions? Your typical diocesan visioning processes in which programs and strategies are mulled over do have value. But it is a limited value. It is these limitations that are often unappreciated. The limitations of this bureaucratic approach are twofold:

Diocesan Limitations:

First, planning for programs, ministries and missions in your average diocese is quite often considered a good work or an accomplishment in itself. However, meetings of this nature, by and large, only talk about the work to be done; they are not work as such. Unfortunately, many diocesan and parish offices consider the meetings and the planning of ministries as a ministry itself. As such, bureaucratic-like complacency sets in from having had so many meetings. Herein lays the limitations of programs and visioning processes. From this, the illusion of progress and motion is created. The wheels are spinning but is the cart really going anywhere?

Second, proposed plans or ideas may or may not be adapted to the real life circumstances the individual or the parish is immersed in. Traditionally, the office is not a good laboratory for testing or evaluating ideas as to what will work and what will not work with people. This is why academia has such a poor record of being able to identify with the outside world. Frankly, intellectuals surround themselves with ideas which often serve as a poor gauge of reality. Office bureaucrats suffer from the same handicap. Where the contribution of administrators does come in is with budgets and providing the material means to carry out ministries. However, wisdom must be borne where the rubber meets the road. This is why the emphasis of spiritual activity is important. Initiatives, creativity and practical wisdom which spring from spiritual activity must be the foundation upon which religious programs are made. If, on the other hand, spiritual activity is made to conform to preconceived ideas or the strategies which are baked in offices, then I am afraid that the ministry or mission at hand will be ineffective and sterile.

Spiritual Activity First:

Spiritual activity, more than planning, adapts and responds to the real needs at hand. It is further a better generator of positive developments than ideas being tossed around at meetings. The history of monasticism and the spiritual enterprises pioneered by the Saints are proof to this effect. Monasticism and the spiritual enterprises pioneered by the Saints led to great innovations and developments for society as well as being a source of renewal for the Church.

What many of us have also forgotten is that holiness is one of the best sources of knowledge. St. Therese the Little Flower was declared a Doctor of the Church, yet she held no theology degree. How many times have we been inspired with an insight at Mass, or in prayer or even as we walking to the refrigerator? This is the Lord's way of letting us know that he is the source of knowledge and wisdom. He is the one who takes the initiative. Yes, we have to do our part. But bottom line is that God is the author of truly creative ideas and insights. He is the cause of all that is good and life giving.

Monasticism's Unintended Consequences:

As you may already know, monasticism is a religious movement that gave birth to monasteries where religious brothers, sisters and clerics prayed, studied and worked. It was and still is a venue where intense spiritual activity takes place. What flourished from this font of spiritual life were positive but unintended consequences.

For instance, many of the developments which led the creation of Christian civilization were unintended. New agricultural methods, a cash economy and other free market principles, non-government universal education, the preservation of classic and sacred literature, representative forms of government, and charities were just a few enterprises which sprang from the monasteries. All of these great services to humanity led to a prosperous Christian civilization. St. Benedict, who founded a community of monks in the sixth century, is considered the father of Christian or Western civilization. Yet the curious thing is that he never intended to create a new civilization. His first priority was to glorify God in prayer.

The most effective and life-giving reforms of renewal within the Church were also unintended. Great reformers such as Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Patrick, St. Columban, Pope St. Gregory VII and Pope St. Pius V all came from backgrounds where intense spiritual activity was to be found. These men and their reforms were not the fruit of meetings nor did they come from a pre-planning process. Their work was the fruit of spiritual discipline and activity. They were innovative and bold...the very thing the Church needed at the time.

God's Initiative:

We also need to remind ourselves that God is the initiator and the driving force behind spiritual creativity and productivity. He invites us to be collaborators. We need his cooperation for any mission to work! The first step, therefore, is not planning out strategies at meetings but rather to seek the will of God out in prayer, in the meditation of Scripture and in sitting before our Eucharistic Lord. From a venue friendly to this kind of spiritual activity comes forth life-giving progress and initiatives that are more often than not unintended. The motive of the Saints and Fathers of the Church was to first and foremost glorify God. In doing so they were led to the uncharted waters of progress and renewal.

It is not so much what you say or what you do that changes people's hearts for the better, it is what God does with what you say and what you do that really counts. No doubt, the content of our words and actions should, at all times, be morally good. And to be sure, there are times when a highly publicized achievement will benefit only a few while small and seemingly unimportant deeds- with God's help -will bring about great changes for many. Psalm 127 says it best: "Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build."

Office to the Sanctuary:

Walking the talk, as opposed to just talking about the walk, is a legacy of holy men and women. Perhaps the first order of diocesan renewal should be to have perpetual adoration in every parish and to establish small communities of prayer. As such, let missionary initiative and creativity come from these venues of prayer rather than relying so heavily on the sterile environment of the office. After all, it was from these kind of spiritual activities that prolific ministries and enterprises had developed in the Church's history. These are the best kind of unintended consequences; the kind that renews Church and builds-up society. Indeed, the New Evangelization needs to have its unintended consequences. The ones that are so good that only God can foresee.